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It was a forgettable year in Georgia sports
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Altanta Falcons fans Pete Watt and his son AJ., 10, sit and watch the closing minutes of Atlanta's 10-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 24.
    At the end of their 162nd game, the Atlanta Braves found themselves in an unfamiliar position.
    There would be no playoff flop this time around because there would be no playoffs. After 14 straight division titles, the Braves called it a year at the end of the regular season. Instead of claiming the top spot in the standings, as they always seemed to do, they stumbled to the finish line in third place, a distant 18 games behind the NL East champion New York Mets.
    It was a stunning end to one of the most amazing streaks in sports history.
    ‘‘It’s kind of remarkable to think,’’ said Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, who was there for so many of those titles and wound up on the other side, helping bring it to an end, ‘‘that there are a lot of guys in that clubhouse who have never been anywhere other than first place in their big league career.’’
    The Braves’ flop epitomized the year in sports for Georgia, where the failures far outweighed the successes.
    There was another late-season collapse by the Atlanta Falcons, putting coach Jim Mora’s job in jeopardy. The Georgia Bulldogs fell far short of defending their Southeastern Conference football title. And Georgia Tech stumbled when an Atlantic Coast Conference crown was in its grasp.
    There’s more. The Atlanta Thrashers came up two points shy of their first NHL playoff appearance — though they headed into the new year in first place — and their co-tenant, the Hawks, remained stuck near the bottom of the NBA (plus, the courts are still trying to figure out just who owns the Hawks and Thrashers). Georgia Tech slumped to 11-17 just two years after reaching the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. Georgia hoops was still trying to recover from the excesses off the Jim Harrick era.
    We’re not done yet. Brian VanGorder had a miserable debut as Georgia Southern’s football coach, while the entire state mourned the death of Erk Russell, the architect of both the ‘‘Junkyard Dawgs’’ defense and Southern’s rise to become a small-college powerhouse. Atlanta lost its LPGA event — sorry, there won’t be a chance to see Annika Sorenstam or Lorena Ochoa in 2007. Tiger Woods came up short at Augusta National while trying to win one last major for his dying father, then didn’t bother to show up for the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake.
    Hardly a year to remember.
    The Braves were the most notable of the failures. Beginning with their worst-to-first title in 1991, they kept winning the division year after year. Even while the roster underwent numerous overhauls — John Smoltz is the only holdover from that first championship team — they always managed to finish first in the regular season. Sure, they were usually a major disappointment in the playoffs, winning their lone World Series way back in ’95, but at least their place in the postseason seemed preordained.
    Then came 2006.
    The Braves basically sealed their fate by doing 6-21 in June while the Mets were pulling away. They held out hope of slipping into the playoffs as a wild card, but came up far short of that goal as well. The pitching staff was an injury plagued mess — especially the bullpen, until a trade for Bob Wickman that came too late to turn things around. Young catcher Brian McCann had a breakout season and Andruw Jones put up another big year, but even that was overshadowed by talk that Atlanta was looking to trade its Gold Glove center fielder before he went into the final year of his contract.
    ‘‘It’s bitter in the sense that we knew the streak was going to come to an end sooner or later,’’ Smoltz moaned. ‘‘But I never thought it would be the way that we have played this year. That’s been really frustrating.’’
    Jones stayed, but the Braves went into the offseason struggling to deal with financial constraints imposed by corporate owner Time Warner, which was devoting most of its efforts to working out a complicated deal to sell the team. Most stunning: Marcus Giles was simply let go when Atlanta, unwilling to pay him million of dollars in arbitration, couldn’t work out a deal for its starting second baseman and leadoff hitter.
    Even so, the Braves talked hopefully about starting a new streak next season.
    ‘‘It feels like it’s the end,’’ said outfielder Jeff Francoeur, one of the young players being counted on to bring the team back, ‘‘but it really feels like it’s a beginning.’’
    The Falcons began this season just like they did the last — and finished the same way, too. After starting 5-2 and looking like a surefire playoff contender, the team did another disappearing act over the second half of the season. With only two wins in eight games heading into Sunday’s finale at Philadelphia, Atlanta was doomed to miss the  playoffs as soon as the New York Giants downed the Washington Redskins late Saturday night.
    Owner Arthur Blank, who handed Michael Vick the richest contract in NFL history and spent millions more to bring in players such as John Abraham, made it clear that mediocrity wasn’t what he had in mind for this team. By all accounts, he was ready to point the finger of blame at Mora, who was the toast of the city just two years ago when he led the Falcons within one win of the Super Bowl in his rookie season as coach.
    ‘‘The talent level is there,’’ Vick said. ‘‘I don’t know what it is, but we’re too good to be losing these games, and we should be ranked among the elite in this league this year and we’re not.’’
    Mora didn’t help his cause with several bizarre gaffes — most notably a late-season radio interview with his old college roommate in which he said he would bolt the Falcons in a heartbeat to coach at Washington, their alma mater. Mora said he was only joking, but it sure didn’t sound like it. He was forced to make a very public apology in Blank’s office — with the owner nowhere around.
    Mora defended his record on the field.
    ‘‘I’m proud of this football team,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve won the most games in the NFC South for three years. We’ve got the fourth-most wins in the NFC over the last three years. We’ve played in the NFC championship game. We’ve won the NFC South. We’ve been in the hunt through 15 weeks last year and we’re still in the hunt through the last week this year.’’
    Georgia came into the year with four straight 10-win seasons and Top 10 finishes, a stretch that included two SEC championships. But the Bulldogs struggled to settle on a quarterback, going from senior Joe Tereshinski to freshman Matthew Stafford to redshirt freshman Joe Cox before settling on Stafford.
    The talented youngster went through plenty of growing pains but seemed to come of age at the end of the season, leading the Bulldogs to wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech. That earned a spot in the Peach Bowl against Virginia Tech — a game the Dogs wound up winning in dramatic come-from-behind fashion — and provided hope that this season was merely a blip in the Mark Richt dynasty.
    ‘‘We felt like we lost a lot of respect in the football world,’’ the coach said. ‘‘We’ve been battling like heck just to get that respect back.’’
    While the Bulldogs finished strong, Georgia Tech fell apart after winning its division. Not only did the Yellow Jackets lose to their state rival for the sixth year in a row, they botched a chance to play in the Orange Bowl with a miserable offensive showing against Wake Forest in the ACC championship game, falling 9-6.
    ‘‘I have a sick taste in my mouth,’’ running back Tashard Choice said, speaking for the entire program.
    Even with all-world receiver Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech couldn’t overcome the erratic play of senior quarterback Reggie Ball, who played terribly against both the Bulldogs and the Demon Deacons. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ball was declared academically ineligible his final college game, the Gator Bowl against West Virginia today.
    How appropriate.
    It was that kind of year for sports in Georgia.